Sports Illustrated Daily, July 22, 1996

Sports Illustrated Olympic Daily Flashback

A bad break for a courageous athlete

by Ron Fimrite

As Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto completed his floor exercises in the men's team competition with one final tumbling run at the Forum in Montreal, he experienced an odd sensation in his right knee. "It felt hollow," he recalled later, "as if there were air in it." In fact, his kneecap was broken, a calamity that under ordinary circumstances would have ended his participation in the Olympic Games on the spot. But Fujimoto, 26, was no ordinary competitor. His teammates, he reasoned, needed whatever points he might accumulate to upset the favored Soviets, and they certainly could be hindered by the emotional trauma of learning that one of their number had suffered such a serious injury. Fujimoto decided he would tell no one, not even his coach, Yakuji Hayata, that he was badly hurt.

Shun Fujimoto

Fujimoto took home two souvenirs—
a gold medal and a cast on his leg.

photograph by
AP


The next event was the pommel horse, and though Fujimoto was in pain throughout, his concentration was so intense that he scored a 9.5 out of a maximum 10 points. "I was completely occupied by the thought that I could not afford to make any mistakes," he said. But the following event, the rings, presented a more daunting challenge because it required a high-flying dismount. How could he possibly concentrate on his routine knowing that at its conclusion he would be exposing himself to unimaginable pain?

But Fujimoto gave the performance of his life on the rings and then, ignoring the consequences, hurled his 136 pounds into a twisting triple-somersault dismount. The pain when his feet hit the floor sliced through him "like a knife," he said, but he kept his balance, his right leg buckling only slightly. Gritting his teeth and with tears in his eyes, he raised his arms in the traditional finish. The judges awarded him a 9.7‹the highest score he had ever recorded on the rings.

It was immediately apparent, however, that something was seriously wrong as Fujimoto staggered away, collapsing in agony into the arms of Hayata. The spectacular dismount had done additional damage to his injured knee‹dislocating the broken kneecap‹and had torn ligaments in his right leg. Still, Fujimoto was determined to carry on, limping off to the infirmary for painkilling shots. There, horrified doctors ordered him to withdraw from the competition or risk being permanently disabled. "How he managed to do somersaults and twists and land without collapsing in screams," said one physician, "is beyond my comprehension."

Far from discouraging his teammates, Fujimoto's injury‹and his courageous performance afterward‹inspired them, even though they faced the added pressure of being short one competitor in the remaining events. (The five highest scores from among a team's six competitors counted toward the team's point total.) As it turned out, the gold medal came down to the horizontal-bars routine by Mitsuo Tsukahara, who needed a score higher than 9.5 to overtake the Soviets. He scored a 9.9, and Japan won the closest gymnastics team competition in Olympic history, 576.85 points to 576.45. (The 1996 men's team gold medal will be decided today at the Georgia Dome.) When he mounted the podium to receive his gold medal with the rest of his teammates, Fujimoto refused assistance.

The gymnastics events at the 1976 Olympics were dominated by the surpassing grace and beauty of the Romanian gamine, Nadia Comaneci, so Fujimoto's heroism went largely unnoticed. But Fujimoto, whose knee still troubles him periodically, will never be forgotten in Japan, where he continued to work years afterward as an official in the Olympic movement. His days as an active competitor ended, however, on that fateful afternoon in Montreal.

Oddly enough, Fujimoto has never been comfortable in the martyr's role. Asked years later if he, given the same choice, would do again what he did in Montreal, he wasted little time in answering with an emphatic, "No. I would not."

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